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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Marketing Of Non-Existence

As American consumers, we frequently purchase food and beverage products based on what is not in them.  Whether it is the level of an ingredient (low fat, low carb…) or the complete absence of an ingredient (fat free, no cholesterol, no HFCS…), products are now defined by what they do not contain, rather than what they do contain.  This is such a common element of our experience that it does not even strike us as odd.  If you step back and think about food from a historical or global perspective this is absurd; having enough food to survive has been a common issue for human survival.  Instead, we have become numb to “The Marketing of Non-Existence.” 

What does this say about our society?

I believe this phenomenon says five, inter-related things about us.
  • 1.     We are wealthy
  • 2.     We are not well versed in basic nutritional principles
  • 3.     We have a tendency towards “magical thinking” when it comes to health
  • 4.     We are thus susceptible to manipulative marketing strategies, and
  • 5.     We are largely unprotected from the “fear industry” associated with food

We are Wealthy

Although few of us think of ourselves this way, most Americans are quite wealthy, spending 10% or less of our income on food, which includes costs for convenience in addition to actual nutrients.   Our choices are about the details of what and how we will get our food and almost never about whether we can eat well or even eat at all.  Indeed, as our obesity epidemic demonstrates, our food issue is one of over-availability.  We are accustomed to buying foods based on non-existence features, possibly because the existence of plentiful food is never a question.

We Are Not Well-Versed in Basic Nutritional Principles

In 1990 Congress passed the “Nutrition Labeling and Education Act” (NLEA).  That law established the requirement for the official nutritional content labeling, which has been on the “back of the package” for foods for the intervening twenty-two years.  The law also called for developing and implementing a comprehensive program to educate the public on basics of nutrition and on how to properly interpret the new labels.  Unfortunately, Congress never authorized the funds for the education part, and so we have nutrition labels that few people know how to interpret.  The difference between the official FDA labeling and the largely unregulated marketing labels is obscured.

We Have A Tendency Towards Magical Thinking When It Comes To Health

Lacking basic background, and being confronted with less-than-balanced sources of “information,” we tend to grasp at simplistic ideas about how to stay healthy.  If we avoid cholesterol maybe we won’t have a heart attack.  If we just avoid fat, we can become thin.  The reality of our need for a moderate and diverse diet with reasonable exercise is lost amid the marketing messages.

We Are Susceptible To Manipulative Marketing Messages

During a period where “saturated fat” topped the non-existence agenda there was a major marketing campaign using the “front of the package” label that said, “No Tropical Oils.”  Palm and coconut oils are indeed saturated fats, but the drive to get consumers to avoid them was less about health and more about being able to sell more soybean oil.  Soybeans are mainly grown for their protein content to be used in animal feeds, but they also contain 20% oil.  The soybean processing industry wanted to expand their sales into food categories by pushing out tropical and animal based fats.  The problem is that soybean oil has properties that make it unsuitable for making a butter substitute (margarine), for many baked goods, or for use as frying oil in the quick-serve restaurant industry.  To fit those uses, soybean oil had to be “partially hydrogenated,” a process by which its excessive “unsaturation” was reduced.  This process generated “trans-fats” which are forms of fat that do not occur naturally in plants and are rare in animals. These are not healthy oils at all.  So, this example of non-existence, faux health marketing ended up shifting the American diet towards something far worse for their health - something actually worth avoiding.

We Are Largely Unprotected From A Fear Industry Associated With Food

Having been exposed to such a string of messages saying “this is what makes food dangerous,” one might think that consumers would become skeptical about yet another scare.  Instead, it seems that we are a society that has become ever more credulous about each new, sensationalized, food-bogeyman.  RBST, HFCS, arsenic, pesticides, gluten, GMOs… all become subject to over-simplified, distorted, messages that help someone sell something, raise funds, or attract an audience.  

So, this is our sad situation.  We are a nation that has a food supply that is perhaps the safest, most diverse, abundant, and affordable in history.  Yet, rather than enjoying that privilege, too many of us either worry excessively about food choices, feel guilty, or make poor choices. 

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